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Opinion: Trump Embraces Caudillo Politics as Latin America Shuns It

Latin America has been shedding its authoritarian past. As the U.S. elects Trump, perhaps Latino immigrants can teach the U.S. about democratization.
President-elect Donald Trump waves to the media from the steps at the clubhouse of Trump National Golf Club November 20, 2016 in Bedminster, New Jersey.DON EMMERT / AFP - Getty Images

For over two hundred years, the United States has defined itself, to a significant extent, in opposition to the rest of the Americas. Appropriating the term “America,” it has come to be seen as a beacon of democracy, freedom, and equality, in contrast to its neighbors to the South for their chaotic political traditions. Populism, authoritarianism, personalism, machismo, racialism, and caudillismo — or strongman rule — have been historically seen as ills almost inherent to Latin American political culture.

With the election of Donald Trump, we can now see that the U.S. is indeed part of the Americas as a whole and shares in those pathologies. And while Latin America has been on a path to ever-greater democratization for about sixteen years, prospects for democracy in the U.S. are more gloomy.

The roles have been reversed, and it is perhaps up to Latino immigrants to teach the U.S. about deepening democratization.

When Latin American politics is discussed, the term ‘populism’ is the first concept that pops up in a lot of people’s minds. Getulio Vargas of Brazil and especially Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina are the archetypal cases from the 1950s.

Charismatic leaders with a knack for demagoguery, these populist leaders tapped into economic anxieties by promising all manner of radical reforms. They lacked a particular ideology, and used nationalism to rally popular support, especially from disaffected lower classes. Just as Perón mobilized the ‘descamisados’ (shirtless ones) in Argentina, so has Trump galvanized members of the working class, especially those wary of socialist alternatives.

Donald Trump sits with U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) at Trump Tower in Manhattan
Donald Trump sits with U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File PhotoREUTERS

This demagoguery was also tied to personalism. Instead of relying on institutions, Perón and other populists in Latin America used their networks of clientelism, friendships and family ties to generate a basis for support. Famously, Perón’s second wife, Eva Duarte, gained immense popularity during his first presidential term. His third wife, Isabel, succeeded him as president upon his death in 1974.

We have seen similar ‘dynastic’ politics in the U.S., with the Bush and Clinton families becoming powerful political players. But with the rise of the Trumps, nepotism and personalism seem more central factors. Trump has relied on his family on his rise to power, and it is no secret that Ivanka and her husband Jared wield unusual influence.

The recent demotion of Chris Christie within the Trump inner circle is likely connected to Christie’s prosecution of Jared’s father,Charles Kushner, and his conviction in 2005. It would not be surprising if Trump’s adult children were to seek official positions within the White House, or if Ivanka were to run for office in the not-so-distant future.The peculiar relationship between Trump and his adult children is emblematic of a patriarchal form of politics that was closely associated to Latin American machismo.

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Throughout the nineteen-sixties and seventies, countless dictators exemplified the metaphor of the pater familias to generate legitimacy for their brand of authoritarianism. Mario Vargas Llosa gives a most graphic account of this gendered dimension of power in his masterpiece The Feast of the Goat. The novel recounts the sexual exploits of the dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, connecting them to the tyrant’s desire for power. The use and abuse of women as objectified commodities was pervasive. Trujillo was married thrice, had multiple mistresses, and boasted of his sexual prowess as a way to gain stature as a strongman.

The use of the eros of power (part of what Machiavelli called virtu, a term rooted in the Latin word for man) has been evident in Trump’s public persona, from his fame as playboy in the opulent NYC scene of the 1980s, to his ownership of the Miss Universe pageant to his marriage to Melania, a former model. Even the crude comments in the Access Hollywood tapes may have actually made him more popular among certain groups. Trump’s behavior recalls a stereotypical machismo.

What all this amounts to is the rise of a Latin American form of politics, caudillismo, or strongman politics, now in the U.S. The recent selection of particular individuals for cardinal posts in Trump’s government suggests that loyalty is what he values most. Men likeGeneral Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Pompeo are possible beneficiaries of this logic.

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Caudillismo arose in nineteenth-century South America among men like Facundo Quirogaand Juan de Rosas, as recounted in the classic work Life in the Days of the Tyrant, written by a founding father of Argentina, Domingo Sarmiento. In it, Sarmiento explains the rise of authoritarianism out of personalistic fealty and racialized politics in Argentina, largely driven by support from rural communities. This phenomenon led to a deep chasm between cities and the countryside, which Sarmiento characterized as a battle between civilization and barbarism. The blue/red lines that now divide the U.S. recall this chasm.

Latin America sees change

Ironically, much of Latin America now is at the forefront of democratization in many respects. Dictatorships, with the exception of Cuba, are a thing of the past.

Authoritarianism, with the exception of Venezuela, is on the wane. Most Latin American states are subject to regular, free, and fair elections.

But the democratization is not merely formal; there is great depth to it.

Latin America has the highest regional rate of women’s participation in legislatures outside of Scandinavia, with countries like Costa Rica leading the way. It has massive popular participation by once-excluded racial and ethnic groups, in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador. And it has a long history of advocating for more open borders in terms of migration, going all the way back to nineteenth-century thinkers such as Simón Bolívar.

These include Juan Egaña, Juan Martínez de Rozas and Bernardo O’Higgins in Chile, Francisco de Miranda in Venezuela, José Cecilio Díaz Del Valle in Central America, and Bernardo Monteagudo and José San Martín in Perú and Argentina. They saw migration not just as a matter of distributive justice, but about as a matter of making the demos more porous and expansive.

How can the U.S. avoid what seems like a looming threat to its democracy? Perhaps the solution is counter-intuitive.

It is up to Latino-American immigrants to not assimilate to the U.S.: In terms of political culture, assimilation would mean becoming tolerant of the current state of low voter turnouts, decreasing interest in politics, proneness to media distortions and exacerbation of racial color lines.

Immigrants from Latin America ought to learn about the historical bases and current trends of Latin American democratization. From their past mistakes and current achievements, these lessons could be transmitted to native-born U.S. citizens.

In particular, younger generations, who may be especially concerned about the present path of U.S. politics towards plutocracy and authoritarianism, might be interested in the migration of ideas on how to deal with these problems.

Diego Von Vacano is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University.

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